I went to a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, from 1966 to 1973. My neighborhood was almost exclusively Catholic: Lebanese, Syrians, Kurds, Italians, Irish and a few Puerto Ricans. People with names like Khoury, Kurdy, Kawas, Bagley, Moury, Passalaqua…and we all went to the same school, the same church. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone thought the whole world was Catholic, except for a few people in Utah who were weird. And somewhere among the stones there lurked Protestants, but we never saw any. We would have known because they would have looked at us with hostility in their beady little Protestant eyes. We knew this because when, in 5th grade, we studied for Confirmation — a sort of Catholic Bar Mitzvah — one of the question-and-answer couplets we had to memorize was this little nugget:
Q: Why should we not be friends with Protestant boys and girls?
A: We should not be friends with Protestant boys and girls because they could lead us away from the faith.
Yep, I’ll never forget that as long as I live. It struck me as very odd, partly because I’d never knowingly seen a Protestant, and because it was not possible to lead us away from the faith: that was unthinkable. Did we want to roast in Hell for eternity? Did we want our parents to be dead from cancer when we got home from school? We’d never betray Jesus. He is watching us, after all — except when I scratch my nuts, I hope: this is what we all thought. Well, maybe not the scratching part, but you get the idea.
Catholics were like that once. Then came the shattering break of 1968 to 1971, when everything changed. I chose 1971 as the end date because that was when All in the Family started airing on CBS. I was in sixth grade. It was the year I discovered what cool was. Here’s how that happened. I was walking home from school (Holy Name of Jesus) one afternoon, and while attempting to overtake a group of kids I didn’t hang around with, heard them saying, “Did you see that show All in the Family? The guy says ‘nigger’ right on television!” And they laughed like idiots. They traded more stories and I realized what they were getting at. This was an emerging world laughing at another, disappearing world. If I watched this show, then I would be part of that emerging world. I’d be part of the group. I’d be cool.
Unfortunately, I could be all of those things, but I was still Catholic, with two more years of Catholic school ahead of me. To make matters worse, my teachers were sadists. No, they didn’t just cut us to shreds with sarcasm: they hit us with their hands, their fists, baseball bats, whiffle ball bats, and loose boards they’d picked up. One kid, Larry Gonzalez, who had a perpetual set of chapped lips, and who was always licking the chapped areas, was always getting in trouble. He’d throw pencils or blow spitballs or pass notes — and he’d be seen doing it by one of the sadistic pricks the Holy Name of Jesus employed as teachers. Therewith began a series of entirely predictable events, beginning with a teacher shouting, “GonZALez!”, then Larry cutting his broad and chapped smile to a sudden frown, then slide down in his seat as the demand was voiced to “get up here, Gonzalez!” He would slink up the aisle (our desks were screwed to the floor in six straight rows) and present himself to the teacher, who would turn him to face the blackboard, instruct him to bend over and touch his toes, and then wail on his ass with whatever was available and with full force. I don’t remember if he ever hollered, but he’d come back to his desk rubbing his behind and with tears in his eyes. And the next day he’d be caught throwing paper airplanes across the room, and the process began anew.
Why would I want to be part of that world of pain and bad choices? This was what my elementary school offered me. Oh, that and eternal salvation, which is a bit too ephemeral and distant for a boy whose biggest concern is not Hell but whether he’ll have any pubic hair by the end of the year. I wanted to be cool, to fit in, to feel a part of that universal group of kids who made friends easily and were accepted by everybody. The kind of kids who could show up alone in the schoolyard and have a ballgame going in minutes with nine on a side.
That Jesus wasn’t doing anything for me. The gospels held no good news, just stuff like the “sin against the holy ghost” that can never be forgiven, and Jesus flitting around Galilee raising the dead and healing the sick and telling people not to tell anyone. That all didn’t make sense. Not the not telling people part, but the raising the dead part. I remember thinking, “If someone were really dead and then resurrected by Jesus, wouldn’t he be hanging around Jesus in every gospel? I mean, that would be really big news. Kings and such would definitely be interested. After all the resurrections in Mark, you’d figure he’d have a cadre of hundreds of former corpses singing his praises. But all he had was the 12 apostles — the 12 idiots who kept with him for three years and never understood a thing he said nor believed a thing he did. “Rise!” said the Lord. “How can he say that to this man? Surely the Lord can see he is dead!” — that kind of thing. They are the biggest buffoons to be found between the covers of the New and Old Testaments. Then, after Jesus is gone, they go running around preaching and writing down their exploits in the Acts of the Apostles. So we’re trusting these buffoons to tell us how they started a church? Are you kidding? That is not cool!
We had to go to Mass every Sunday with our class. What’s worse, our teachers were there with us, the poor bastards. (Actually, they did get what they wanted: exemption from service in Viet Nam.) Every time I went to church, I felt more alienated from Catholicism. It was around the time I was in eighth grade that I began seeing bumper stickers on the Poor Box in church saying, Abortion is Murder! and wondering what abortion was. You might say I was sheltered. But the church was moving in a weird direction. It seemed to me that the most obvious murdering they should be protesting should be the murders our Army was committing in Southeast Asia. My family was virulently anti-war, probably because my parents had three boys. Then there was talk against the Equal Rights Amendment. Nothing at all that related to the world I saw all around me.
It was then, in eighth grade, that I first was able to think of myself as not Catholic. The idea of leaving it all behind was still scary (and secretly I apologized to Jesus for not believing in him.) I started reading books critical of religion, then reading the New Testament, and I saw how stupid my parents were in sending me and my brothers to that penal colony called Holy Name of Jesus. There was no god, there was no legitimacy to the gospels, and I could not trust a priest. I was on to something. It wasn’t that it was cool, because it wasn’t: atheists thought, “So what?” and Jews thought, “Finally saw through his silly Christianity!” and the religious were just hurt and defensive. Cool would have to wait. Cool was a going to be a lot harder than jettisoning my faith. I’d have to tune in to this new culture by watching All in the Family and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Slowly it became apparent to me that the whole world seemed to be watching the same shows, because all of a sudden, news reporters were cool: they’d make a reference to Archie Bunker. People you’d meet in stores were cool: they’d mention Archie Bunker. The only people who just didn’t get it were the priests and those who still went to church. Them and their distinctly uncool dozen idiots stumbling through the dust of early Christianity. They could stay there, for all I cared. I wanted to stay in the new world, the world of promise, of light, of openness. A world where everybody got Monty Python references. We might have had that world for a week or two in 1973, but it proved as ephemeral as any promise of paradise ever did.